Any of you who follow me on Instagram or of course know me personally, know that I just returned from a one-month trip to Europe. It was everything travel is to me: an adventure, an experience, tiring, fun, a learning experience. I will say that one month is a long time when you are changing places every three days
and are with two teenagers 24/7.
We visited France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Italy. People ask me what’s my favorite place. It’s a hard question to answer. Paris is undeniably a beautiful city, with THE best baguettes and croissants I’ve ever had. Brussels was a smaller version of a gorgeous European city with it’s character and architecture …. and it didn’t hurt that on every corner were more and more of the best waffles I’ve ever had. (I thought I didn’t care for waffles, I was wrong. Again). Germany, with its Biergartens and pretzels and castles won my heart in a way I didn’t think possible. I loved Austria, especially the mountainous regions. Never mind how gleeful I was being in Salzburg, seeing how much of the Sound of Music was filmed there. (I would like to here state the appreciation of my patient family as I dragged them from one site to the next).
If anyone knows me, they know that Italian food is my favorite; so ending off in Italy wasn’t the worst way to end a European vacation. We went back to the same restaurant in Rome that we visited last year and had the same Carbonara. It did not disappoint. It was as good as I remembered for the past year. Neither did the pizza and the cheap wine sold in restaurants by the liter, the seafood in Venice, the gelato in Florence.
The last week we ended up in Tuscany again which is probably my overall favorite landscape. We kept pulling over to make U-turns to get pictures of those gorgeous cypress trees.
I sighed a lot in bliss.
We have been back for a week now and I’m almost over my carb addiction. I’m trying to learn my lesson from last year, where I was so sad that I wasn’t in Italy anymore that I just kept eating carbs and drinking wine for weeks on end without exercising and gained more weight after my vacation then during. And nobody feels sorry for you when you’re in a post-vacation depression.
This year I’m trying to learn from the mistakes of last year. But that doesn’t mean I still wasn’t going to make carbs. Last year I returned and perfected my carbonara. This year I was determined to make the simplest, most phenomenal Cacio e Pepe as close to how they do in Italy.
There are so many versions out there but I wanted to do it the purest way. When I say three ingredients I mean three ingredients; pecorino romano cheese, pepper, and pasta. When I googled three ingredient cacio e pepe, I was shocked how many versions had oil or butter. To me, those ingredients are used when someone needs a little help binding the cheese to the pasta to make the sauce. I didn’t want to do that. It does take a little bit of technique to make a creamy sauce with pretty much only water and cheese so I’ll tell you how I did it.
The first time I tried, my cheese clumped, my precious pecorino that I brought from Italy. Ug. I had forgotten to turn the heat off when I added it to the pasta and that’s why it clumped.
The next time, I tried a little trick that I’ve seen done by some Italian chefs: I added a little of the starchy water that the pasta was cooking to the cheese and made a paste. By doing this, when it’s time to add the cheese to the pasta, it’s already halfway to it’s melted state, meaning you don’t need anything but residual pasta heat to melt it the rest of the way. Perfection.
Another tip is to cook your pasta in minimal water. I KNOW I KNOW this goes against everything we’ve been told our entire lives. Me too, but there’s actually a very good reason: the less water you use, the starchier your water is, meaning the more the cheese has to cling to. That’s what makes this dish work with such few ingredients.
With regards to the pepper, please do not use pre-ground. You’ve heard the advice: if you want a simple dish with few ingredients to be great, use the right stuff, the good stuff. In this case, you have two choices: you can freshly grind your pepper from a pepper mill; or you can use a mortar and pestle, or “molcajete” as they call them here in Mexico, to grind it yourself. Doing it the latter way gives you control over the size of the pepper. I did a mixture of both: some with my pepper mill, and some freshly ground with bigger chunks. Perfect for me. After all, I like a little peppercorn stuck in my teeth.
A little scared to try? Don’t be. Follow the tips and you’ll be enjoying the best Cacio e Pepe outside of Italy.
Still scared? Here’s a picture taken just outside of Siena, Tuscany to help inspire you.
Open your wine and let it breathe because this pasta will be ready in under 15 minutes. And until you can get there yourself, dream of eating it in this window.
I know I will.
3 INGREDIENT CACIO E PEPE
- 2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese
- 1 1/2 to 2 TAB freshly ground black pepper (adjust to your liking)
- 250 grams good quality spaghetti
Grind or crush peppercorns and put into a large saucepan. Set aside.
Bring water to boil in a large and slightly deep saucepan. Cook pasta until al dente or firm to the bite. Drain pasta, reserving about 1 cup of pasta water.
Turn heat on the saucepan with pepper. Let toast lightly on medium heat about 2 minutes. Add about half a cup of the pasta water. Let this simmer on the heat for about 2-3 minutes. Add pasta, combine well, and let bind together about 4-5 minutes at same level of heat. If water disappears too quickly, add more. Stir or shake pan regularly.
With grated cheese in a small bowl, add enough pasta water to make a thick paste, about a tablespoon or two. Mix until a paste forms.
Turn off heat. Add cheese and quickly stir or shake pan until cheese is completely melted and coats the noodles. If you find you need it, you can always add a bit more of the cooking water.
Remove from saucepan, season with salt if necessary (try it first, pecorino is a salty cheese) and serve immediately.